Review Summary: "And the viol still shrieked..."
Ever since Germany’s Mekong Delta had released their self-titled debut in 1987, they had become an influential yet simultaneously inimitable pillar of both the thrash metal and the burgeoning progressive metal genres, particularly in Europe. Much of their sound had managed to separate them from their peers even during their early years due to their long-standing member and founder Ralph Hubert’s own fascination with Russian classical music from the likes of Mussorgsky as well as the surrounding interest the other members had in progressive rock. While their international peers such as Watchtower and Voivod had a more futuristic bend, Hubert and co. found themselves bathed in a swirling atmosphere that reflected their Lovecraftian themes that were very much apparent after their sophomore release, the progressive thrash classic, The Music of Erich Zann.
From there, one of the most formidable creative streaks in the metal genre had ensued in which the band had embarked on the composition of labyrinthine thrashers on the first three albums, long epics in 1990’s Dances of Death (and Other Walking Shadows) and more purely progressive metal focused efforts on 1992’s Kaleidoscope with a remarkable commitment to creating a consistent yet multifaceted core sound (that few bands have the dexterity or even will to actually accomplish) with lineups consisting of members consisting of German metal veterans such as Living Death and Avenger, up and coming talents like guitarist Uwe Baltrusch and even some talents from abroad such as American vocalist, Doug Lee, from Siren. However, after the less than stellar effort that was 1994’s Visions Fugitives and growing band tensions, Mekong Delta had disbanded after their Pictures at an Exhibition album in 1997, with founder Ralph Hubert making very few professional sightings even in his incredibly prominent role as a producer. This dormancy would continue for a while until he had finally reformed Mekong Delta and announced 2007’s Lurking Fear with the lineup consisting of Wolf Spider’s Leszek Szpigiel, Theory in Practice’s Peter Sjöberg and drummer Uli Kusch of Gamma Ray and Holy Moses fame.
Lurking Fear was a massive success as it was a superb return to form, evoking the psychotic intensity present throughout the band’s early work like The Music of Erich Zann with members like Szpigiel delivering a performance that matched the insane inflections and cadence of Wolfgang Borgmann’s, who provided vocals on the first three albums. What made it more extraordinary is how much of a bolt from the blue the album seemed like at the time in which it was released. Many newly-formed progressive thrash acts either did not release much of their more important material at the time or were only in the demo phase. Lurking Fear, on the other hand, was an entry from a classic band that in many ways seemed to match, and even surpass, their contemporaries with Ralph Hubert still managing to have the same kind of compositional potency he possessed during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. However, it did not stop here.
It must be asked why an album like Wanderer on the Edge of Time requires a preamble this lengthy and in truth, that is due to how it manages to be a departure from what little can be expected from the band. Some of that is due to the lineup which is now the current lineup they have. Martin LeMar makes his debut appearance on vocals in Mekong Delta’s discography and he’s already quite a different vocalist when compared to even the likes of Doug Lee as he is much more melodious and generally operates more within the styles of those such as Fates Warning’s Ray Alder instead of the more unnerved style employed by the likes of Borgmann or even Lee and Szpigiel. On guitars is Erick Adam H. Grösch of Annon Vin fame, who is an incredibly appropriate inclusion as Hubert had done production work on both the Higher Spheres EP and their full-length, A New Gate with the second guitarist being Benedikt Zimniak of Starchild and Ivory Night. Lastly, there is Alex Landenburg who is a similarly appropriate choice to handle percussion since he was drumming for bands like Annihilator in the years prior to having joined. Drawing from members that differ from much of the previous Mekong Delta members while still being geared towards progressive metal or other technical styles that have suited the band’s history, Wanderer proved to be an ambitious push that perhaps pushes many of Hubert’s classical inspirations further than they had ever gone before.
The album is comprised of quite a few instrumental interludes that range from full-blown instrumental movements such as “Ouverture” and “Intermezzo - Movement 5” to quite a few concert guitar interludes. A historically contentious aspect of many metal albums in the past but are handled incredibly well here given how they are written as they swell into the fully fleshed out vocal tracks, building into the songs that employ the thrashier riffing Mekong Delta is known for on tracks such as “The Apocalypt - World in Shards” and “Mistaken Truth” which proceed into some immensely rich soloing by Grösch and Zimniak. What’s also a rather interesting development is that on tracks like “The 5th Element” is that there is often the use of developing lead harmonies throughout the track which give the album quite a bit of atmosphere alongside much of the technique in order to match the more conceptual nature of the album itself and the somber undertones that permeate some of the more pensive moments within tracks like “Affection” and “A Certain Fool”. What makes the interludes have as much place as the construction of the actual tracks as well as some often integrate a central motif which can be heard when the album first begins in the intro. This helps give the feeling of the album more depth as the melody itself is quite ominous and gives the more sorrowful atmosphere of Wanderer an additional undertone of unease. As a whole, Zimniak and Grösch deliver a very mature performance that not only establish them as fantastic additions to the band’s lineup but give Hubert and Landenburg a large amount of room in which to shine.
In contrast to the preceding album, Lurking Fear, the bass is once again much more prominent in both the mix and the composition which reveals a lot of excellently-written basslines by Hubert throughout that contrast off the creative staccato rhythms, surprising march rhythms and fills that Landenburg disperses throughout. A combination of lurching and unpredictably advancing basslines during the more mid-tempo moments of the album that often duel in tandem with Landenburg’s own rhythms on tracks like “King With Broken Crown” and the frenetic intensity of his own melodic runs on the faster progressive thrash tracks like “Mistaken Truth”, he still easily provides a creeping and dynamic foundation to the songwriting and really does prove to be the central figure that has kept the band vital for all this time, especially when one considers how he plays around the numerous new influences that are present this time around. This brings us to the element that would feel new even to those with only a passing familiarity with the Mekong Delta discography: Martin LeMar’s vocal performance.
The vocals on this album reside in stark contrast to much of what had come previously and while there is certainly a less manic feel to his performance when compared to the others that preceded his, there is no loss of dynamicism anyway. What is impressive in regards to LeMar is both the intelligence of his application of vocal styles reminiscent of Geoff Tate’s or Ray Alder’s, which have been alien to this band prior to this album, while matching his warm timbre to the bleak mystery of Ralph’s own sound that established Mekong Delta decades previously. The forlorn drama that is brought forth to the more aggressive tracks and the sweeping backing vocal harmonies he weaves throughout to match some of the orchestral arrangement present locks into many of the airy guitar harmonies present in the album. On top of that, the faster rhythms prove to be no challenge to him whatsoever, matching it with a menacing baritone that injects contempt into the twisted playing of his bandmates. All this results in an outing that manages to subvert many of the negative expectations that may have been created by his inclusion and only enhances the immense scope that Wanderer accomplishes.
Wanderer on the Edge of Time is a rather rare milestone that many artists often do not even come close to approaching. Despite having been dormant for a good decade, this band had managed to release an album that stays true to the vision that was shown by many of the previous albums while still managing to reinvigorate itself under Ralph Hubert’s direction. This is a sign of an artist that has managed to be the visionary in both an album that not only shows that he can match his older work but also that of his many younger peers that have since surfaced in his absence. Not only is this just an excellent release but it is also a reaffirmation of the importance of one of the longest-standing but also oft-overlooked institutions in progressive and thrash metal. Something with the potential to be a modern classic and highlight of the decade.